2013 shaping up to be a crucial year for CRC

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Bridge traffic hasn't grown with county population.

The Columbia River Crossing brings an ambitious to-do list into 2013, with more eyes than ever closely watching the controversial megaproject.

Among its top priorities: Get both Washington and Oregon to commit state money to the project. Get a bridge permit. Get local light rail funding lined up. CRC planners will need to do all that and more if they have any hope of starting construction by the end of 2014, as planned -- a timeline one oversight group already calls "highly optimistic."

Washington Project Director Nancy Boyd, ever-positive about the CRC's prospects, acknowledged this much in a recent interview:

"I don't think it's going to be a cakewalk," Boyd said.

For now, the attention turns to Olympia and Salem. With the Washington and Oregon legislatures getting back in session, supporters of the CRC are pushing for the two states to come up with $450 million each toward building the project. Act now, they argue, or risk losing the chance at crucial federal grant dollars.

But plenty of lawmakers remain skittish about committing money to the $3.5 billion Interstate 5 Bridge replacement, which would also rebuild five miles of freeway and extend light rail into Vancouver. They cite major unanswered questions. Will federal money come through as planned? How will tolls pencil out? Will the U.S. Coast Guard approve a 116-foot-high bridge over the Columbia River, after planners scrambled to revise a 95-foot design rejected as too low?

"You're going to get one shot to build this bridge," said state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, who has been critical of the CRC. "You better make sure if you build it, it's going to be sufficient."

Eyes on Olympia and Salem

As they search for CRC funding, Washington and Oregon are starting with the same $450 million target. But they'll likely pursue different paths to get there, through very different political landscapes.

In Oregon, the CRC commands a relatively higher profile. It's by far the state's biggest public works project. It connects directly to the state's biggest population base in the Portland area. Any funding plan out of the Oregon Legislature is likely to feature the CRC as its centerpiece.

In Washington, the CRC is just one of multiple megaprojects in the state. It's a defining issue for Clark County, but not for the Puget Sound region, which is often a driving force in Olympia's political agenda. That's why it's going to take a larger funding package -- a compromise -- to steer money toward the CRC, said Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver.

"We're going to have to look at basically what's best for the state of Washington," Moeller said. "This stuff about what's best for me or what's best for my district is not going to fly. We're all in this."

Moeller said there are several possible ways to help pay for such a package with new revenue. It might be a higher fuel tax, he said. Motor vehicle taxes. Freight fees. Even bicycle or electric vehicle fees.

Whatever lawmakers come up with could end up before voters, Moeller said. But it would need to get through the full Legislature first. A new majority coalition this year gave Republicans narrow control of the state Senate, and several lawmakers have made it clear they're not sold on the CRC as planned.

That includes King, who cited cost overruns and budget shortfalls on other large projects as a reason the CRC needs to provide more solid answers than it has so far. In Seattle, a funding gap in the planned replacement of the state Highway 520 bridge has state officials looking at tolling nearby Interstate 90. The Highway 520 bridge itself is already tolled.

"It gives you pause that you really need some good information and projections," King said. "And I'm not sure we have that, particularly on the Columbia River Crossing."

The CRC may find better prospects in the Oregon Legislature. The state's governor, Democrat John Kitzhaber, has called the project a top priority this year. He'll be working with Democratic majorities in the state Senate and House when the 2013 session starts in earnest Monday.

State Rep. Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, said he believes it's time to move forward on the CRC -- but only with certain conditions to account for lingering uncertainty. Oregon may want to authorize its $450 million share pending Coast Guard approval of the bridge height, for example, said Read, who chairs the House Transportation and Economic Development Committee.

In his recommended budget, Kitzhaber suggested using "transportation-related" revenue to fund the CRC. A spokesman offered increased vehicle fees as a possibility. A fuel tax may also enter the conversation.

CRC leaders insist action is needed from Washington and Oregon this year to keep the project on track. Supporters in each Legislature have echoed that sentiment.

Washington state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she sees no such urgency. There are still plenty of questions at the federal level, she said, offering time for the states to "get it right" before committing money to a flawed CRC plan. Even if Washington did send a transportation package to voters this year, it's not clear they would support it, she said.

"The people right now are stretched very thin," Rivers said.

As the CRC debate evolves, both states will be keeping one eye on the other. Washington may only need to set aside $260 million for the initial construction phase up front, Boyd said. If the two states both don't secure at least something, the CRC's planned start date will almost surely be delayed again.

"If Washington doesn't commit to its part, it won't happen," said Oregon Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. "It's that simple. Either they will step up, or they won't."

Said Moeller: "We have to both step up to the plate."

Federal, local uncertainty

Even if Washington and Oregon do find state dollars for the CRC, there are other financial pieces that still need to fall into place for the project. The CRC's plan also banks on an $850 million federal grant, $400 million more in "discretionary" federal highway money and up to $1.3 billion in toll revenue. None of that money is secured.

Another crucial piece hinges on C-Tran. The transit agency needs to find about $2.5 million annually to pay for the operation of light rail in Vancouver. Its first choice, a sales tax increase, was rejected by voters last year.

C-Tran leaders haven't decided what to do next. But that money must be locked in before the Federal Transit Administration will consider handing out the $850 million grant tied to light rail. CRC leaders are planning to apply for that grant later this year, meaning C-Tran will have to act fast for that to happen -- particularly if light rail operations funding requires another public vote. And that wouldn't guarantee that Clark County voters would support it.

CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney said another vote could be scheduled this year if needed. It will be up to C-Tran leaders to decide which path to pursue. The agency's board will hold a daylong workshop meeting on Feb. 23, where light rail funding is sure to come up.

It's not as crucial that the CRC nails down the $400 million in highway money right away, Boyd said. Plans call for that money to be received in $100 million chunks over four years, but its status is far from a sure thing.

The federal program the CRC has identified as a possible source, Projects of National and Regional Significance, has only $500 million authorized for fiscal year 2013 -- for the entire country -- and nothing confirmed beyond that. Another possibility remains in limbo without solid funding from Congress even this year.

Boyd said additional tolling revenue may help make up any funding shortfalls. But the CRC won't know for sure how tolls will measure up until an investment grade tolling analysis is finished late in 2013. Ultimately, the states are the responsible party to make up any gaps, Boyd said.

Uncertainty aside, the CRC continues to find friends in high places. The project recently landed on a White House list of expedited "We Can't Wait" efforts. It's also received ringing endorsements from top federal officials including outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

"I think that we have really amazing federal support on this project," Boyd said.

Logistical, legal questions

There are more than financial questions facing the CRC in 2013.

Just last week, project leaders filed an application they hope will give them a crucial bridge permit from the U.S. Coast Guard this year. The CRC is asking for approval of a bridge that's 116 feet high -- a number it arrived at only after a very public flap over earlier plans rejected as inadequate. The Coast Guard and others said a 95-foot-high span wouldn't meet the Columbia River's navigation and river needs. The current I-5 Bridge, when lifted, allows for as much as 178 feet of head room.

Coast Guard officials haven't signaled a specific bridge height they want to see from the CRC. But they've pressed project planners for better explanation of how they plan to work around existing river users, and better justification when they don't. The Coast Guard could process the CRC's bridge permit application in as little as eight months.

One of the river users potentially most affected by the project, Vancouver-based Thompson Metal Fab, filed a lawsuit last year arguing the CRC hasn't properly considered the negative impact it would have on its manufacturing operation and others on the river. A group of three Oregon nonprofits filed a lawsuit of their own, citing environmental impacts among their worries.

Those legal challenges, though not unexpected, remain unresolved.

"We are trying to get the message out there that this is a really risky highway project that's not going to bode well for either Washington or Oregon," said Steven Cole, vice president of the Portland-based Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods.

Legal challenges highlight the divergent interests surrounding the sprawling project. Many Clark County residents against the CRC, for example, have used light rail opposition as a main rallying cry. Cole's Portland group, while against the CRC in its own right, has gone a completely different direction.

"The majority of Portlanders seem happy with our light rail system," Cole said. "The light rail is not as big a concern, certainly from our organization."

A crossroads

For the CRC, it's been a long road to get to this point: eight years, seven project co-directors, multiple designs, delays and more than $160 million spent on planning. And almost two more years, at least, before construction starts.

Can the CRC meet its latest target? Portland economist Joe Cortright, a close observer and critic of the project, doesn't think so.

"I think there's zero likelihood that they can start construction by 2014," Cortright said.

Boyd insisted that's still the date project leaders are aiming for. The fact that there are more eyes on the CRC now than ever, she said, is a reflection on how far it's come.

"I think it's really positive now that there's so much attention happening, and I think it's indicative of how close we are to construction," Boyd said. "We're really as close as we've ever been to construction right now."

With so many puzzle pieces yet to fall into place, Boyd pointed to the many that already have. That includes a federal Record of Decision in 2011, marking a key milestone at the time. The project has also received tolling authority from both states, and carried out field work and foundation tests on what will be the footprint of a new bridge.

Meanwhile, a crescendo of attention continues. Any number of factors could still derail the project as planned. This much is clear: 2013 will go a long way in determining the project's ultimate fate.

"It's really the crossroads of a lot of different things," Boyd said.


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.